Plan as we may, life is a series of unpredictable moments—and 2020 provided an interminable year’s worth of them. Photographers are accustomed to shifting landscapes; it’s their job to show us the world through ever-changing lenses. We asked 14 of them across the West—news and food photographers, portraitists and fine artists—to help us see last year as they saw it. Each photographer chose the images that most resonated with them from their 2020 portfolio. The work shows that miracles, even in an annus horribilis, can still abound: from once-in-a-lifetime comets over Mount Shasta to spectacular bioluminescence in Monterey Bay, from baby sheep in Idaho to desolate freeways in downtown L.A. Photography forces the world to sit still, just long enough for a shutter to click. So take a breath and enjoy these remarkable images.
Photographers Paul Kuroda and Safi Alia Shabaik sit down with Alta Asks Live on Wednesday, January 20 at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.
Enter Alta’s 2020 Photography Contest:
Photo by Craig Lee
Like a few million other people across the Bay Area on September 9 last year, Lee woke up to smoky skies bathed in an eerie orange hue. “I have never seen San Francisco look like this in all the years I have lived here,” he says. “I had to go out and get photos.” He drove to Chinatown before making his way to the North Beach neighborhood. At Broadway and Columbus, the site of the legendary striptease bar the Condor Club, he took his time to achieve the composition he wanted. “My exposure was 1/250, f2.8, ISO 5000, with my lens set at 35 mm,” Lee says. “It was dark like nighttime, even though this photo was taken at 11 a.m.”
Photo by Andrea D’Agosto
A surefire way to encourage your three-year-old son not to budge in his seat during a haircut? Turn on a show he’s obsessed with: Science Max, a Canadian kids’ program in which the host conducts large-scale science experiments. “Haircuts at home during the quarantine made sense for so many reasons,” says D’Agosto, a Los Angeles–based food photographer. They saved money, gave the family a fun activity to do together, and provided time to learn something new. Plus, she says, “Who cares if I mess it up? Because where are we going, anyway?”
Brewing New Beginnings
Photo by Andrea D’Agosto
South LA Cafe is a Black-owned business that opened in 2019 to be more than a café; it serves as a community hub for coffee, culture, and conversation in South Los Angeles, an area where few such coffee shops and restaurants exist. Last July, D’Agosto volunteered to document a day in the life of the café’s owners. These customers came in to grab cold drinks on a hot morning.
Photo by Penni Gladstone
Gladstone is a Marin-based photojournalist who often captures intimate portraits of her subjects—loved ones included—in a natural environment. Lake Tahoe is a favored year-round destination for her and her family, who hike, bike, ski, and swim in the area. Gladstone photographed her husband, Peter Graumann, in a euphoric moment as he backsplashed in an alpine pond near the lake last spring. “Shot with an iPhone,” she says. “I couldn’t resist what I anticipated would happen.”
Reclaiming the Flag
Photo by Gregg Segal
With chapters across the United States, the Buffalo Soldiers Mounted Cavalry Unit seeks to preserve and share an often-untold but vital part of African American history: the role of the Black army regiments that fought on the United States’ western frontier after the Civil War. Segal photographed 26-year-old new recruit Donavan Tolbert in Rancho Cucamonga, California. “Our flag has become a politicized symbol; right-wing extremists frequently claim the flag for themselves and their values,” says Segal. “It was refreshing and hopeful to see Donavan waving the flag, a symbol of national pride for all Americans.”
Photo by Paul Kuroda
Firefighters had been wrestling with various California fires for 20 straight days, and the devastating Glass Fire in Napa County for the past two, when award-winning news photographer Kuroda came upon a few of them from Willits, California, taking a much-needed rest in a vineyard in Angwin. When the mom of firefighter Tylor Yadon (rear center) later saw Kuroda’s image on Facebook, she wrote that it “hit right smack in the heart.… I’m so proud of you all and so honored to be your mom.” “I was touched by how she responded,” says Kuroda, who feels a new responsibility to provide eyes for those who cannot see their loved ones on the front lines. “They cannot come back to their homes sometimes for weeks,” he says.
The Crying Tree
Photo by David Royal
Sky Ranch is a community of homes—many of which were lost during the Carmel Fire—that spreads out on a ridge in Monterey County’s rural East Carmel Valley. “The heat and smoke in the area was pretty intense, even with my protective fire gear on,” says Royal, who was photographing the area in August. Though the cause of the fire has yet to be confirmed, several burns in the area were sparked by lightning, smoldering for a few days before igniting into major blazes. “The burning tree was pretty intense to see in person on a charred hillside,” Royal says. “It represents the intensity of this fire season and the changes that climate change is bringing.”
Photos by Rachael Porter
In a series of pandemic portraits she calls People in Place, Porter has photographed friends in Los Angeles who are taking COVID-19 seriously (two of the three groups pictured here have family members with asthma) and staying home. “I try to show more of the positive side,” says Porter, “that they are together and safe and still finding ways to laugh.” Above, Rachel Olson and Kyle Kinane stand in their garage, holding up paper smiles on sticks in front of their masks; below: Ahmed Khater and his roommates water plants on their balcony; bottom: Juan and Molly Thorn and their two children show support for Black lives from their front lawn.
Crackle and Pop
Photo by Johnny Chien
While taking pictures of bioluminescence at Manresa Main State Beach on August 15, Chien watched a storm blow in and lightning crackle over Monterey Bay. “It was so far out that I could see the lightning but not hear any thunder,” he says. “The wind was calm, there was no rain, so I didn’t fear for my safety. I stayed to see if I could capture some lightning with the bioluminescent waves.” Lightning is rare in the bay, reports Chien; so is bioluminescence. For an hour, he watched Mother Nature’s two light shows ignite, amazingly, in unison. “I was in awe,” says Chien. “This might be the only time in my life that I will ever witness this.” Little did he know that up to 11,000 strikes would set off the CZU Lightning Complex fires over the next couple of days.
Lives of the Artists
Photos by Safi Alia Shabaik
Shortly before stay-at-home orders took hold in California, L.A.-based Shabaik documented two events that were big on spectacle. The Facade Drag Show at Hamburger Mary’s in Long Beach bills itself as the largest drag competition in Southern California. At one of the season-six events (above), Shabaik took a portrait of drag queen Selena Blackwater making a bejeweled entrance. (The season’s event theme, “Dripping in Jewels,” was an homage to a beloved local drag queen named Jewels.) The show “provides a safe space and platform for up-and-coming drag queens and drag kings to express themselves creatively,” says Shabaik, “and to be judged and critiqued by seasoned queens who lend them advice on honing their drag personas and craft.” At a Lucha VaVoom show at the Mayan Theater in downtown L.A. (below), Shabaik got a low-angle perspective on the legs of Miss Tosh under her billowing pink gown, with a high-kicking showgirl in the background. The show guarantees an outlandish mix of burlesque, mariachis, comedy, and flying lucha libre. “It is an experience that everyone should have at least once,” says Shabaik, “and that will be seared into one’s brain for a lifetime.”
Photo by Charles Post
At just a few days old, these bighorn lambs navigate the hills during a spring downpour in Idaho’s Snake River Valley. Post was in the area working on the short documentary Wild and Wool, which explores how to save a bighorn sheep population that has been devastated by a respiratory pathogen, Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae. The illness arrived with the introduction of domestic sheep and is transferred through physical contact with wild populations. Once a wild bighorn sheep is infected, Post says, the sickness often spreads among the herds, leading to massive die-offs. The disease has been a major cause of wild-sheep population declines across North America.
The Stone Diaries
Photo by Walter Feller
The first time Feller saw this canyon—in a remote nook of Apple Valley, California, about 15 miles from the photographer’s home, in Hesperia—was many years ago, when he’d stopped for lunch nearby. “This is a land born of strength and turmoil, swathed in beauty,” says Feller, who revisited the area last year. “It felt good to get out after such a long retreat.” To catch the fading light, he waited for the last long shadows, stretching from a copper sunset, to play their silent game across the granitic plutons, which he describes as “worn away to a frenzied garden of wild and unearthly styled trees that are not trees, in a forest that is not a forest.” Most of what Feller photographs is incorporated into his 25-years-in-the-making Mojave Desert web project, which he uses to “illustrate geological processes.”
Photo by Spencer Lowell
Lowell and his family—wife Claudia and sons Francis, 8, and Pascal, 4—were about a month into lockdown in L.A. when they headed to the Mojave to release some pent-up energy. “We were all losing our minds and decided to drive to the desert, where we knew the kids could run around and we could have a moment to breathe without being around other people,” says Lowell. The family had been spending shutdown in a tiny guesthouse while work was done on their own home. El Mirage Lake—a dry lake bed just west of Adelanto, California—was officially closed at the time, but Lowell parked on the side of the road, and they walked out onto the landscape anyhow. “It was liberating for all of us and really eased the stress, fear, and panic we were all experiencing from the early days of the pandemic.”
Photos by Tod Seelie
At the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown, what immediately struck many who live in Los Angeles, as Seelie does, was how quiet the city suddenly became without cars on the roads. The same stillness overtook popular outdoor shopping promenades that were now devoid of shoppers. Seelie took to the streets—and the sky—to chronicle these rare moments. From top: The 110 freeway heading into downtown L.A. during morning rush hour; the Grove shopping mall; the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica; an empty downtown thoroughfare.
What a Grind
Photo by Tod Seelie
How do you encourage skateboarders to practice social distancing? Officials decided to partially fill in the famed Venice Skate Park with sand during the shutdown—a convenient material to use, given the park’s oceanfront location. The act provided Seelie with a dystopian landscape that better recalls Planet of the Apes than Dogtown and Z-Boys.
Loud and Clear
Photos by Tod Seelie
For most of the year, photographers could have their pick of protests to cover across California. Seelie dropped into one against the state’s lockdown held in Huntington Beach, where many protesters not only denounced Governor Gavin Newsom’s decree but also had decked themselves out in pro–President Donald Trump accessories (above). Far from the Pacific, in Palmdale, at the northern reaches of Los Angeles County, Seelie captured another moment that played out on streets across the country: a child leaning out of a car holding a sign during a Black Lives Matter protest (below).
Photo by Jesse Smith
“Sometimes you need a kick in the pants to get your creative motivation going,” says Smith. He’s referring to his friend Jasman Mander, who texted him in July about seeing the comet Neowise. “It was the first time I had heard of this thing,” says Smith. They chose to view it from Shasta-Trinity National Forest—Smith was born in the city of Mount Shasta and had camped in the area. “Something about the forests and rocks and makeup of the land just works,” he says, “and nature laid up this absolutely perfect window of a composition.” It took some effort—and planning—to make it happen. With prime comet viewing set to occur at 4 a.m., Smith pulled an all-nighter, driving to Mount Shasta from his Washington State home, then hiking for an hour to reach Heart Lake. When “the earth rotated to reveal the comet,” he says, “I felt like we were at the ultimate amusement park.” A bright moon behind Smith helped light the foreground as well. “I consider it a shot of a lifetime, and I’m so glad Jasman dragged me out that night.”